Disrupting Cannabis Cultivation: An Interview with Dan Sutton of Tantalus Labs

Dan Sutton

I sat down recently with Dan Sutton of Tantalus Labs, a Vancouverite and entrepreneur who’s committed to disrupting the cannabis industry. Like most people driven by an intense passion for positive change, Dan is the gregarious, outspoken sort. He never sounds like he’s holding anything back, because he wants you to understand his industry and his passions the way he understands them.

But what are his passions? What is it about cannabis production that makes this 32-year-old so dead-set on revolution? Is it just about making British Columbia feel a little more relaxed?

Maybe in part. Dan sure is committed to growing the sort of B.C. bud that will become the international standard for quality. But there’s a more classically British Columbian explanation for his passions: cannabis production is dominated by an “outlaw culture,” as Dan sees it. Grow-ops in warehouses consume egregious amounts of power and resources, and it isn’t sustainable. Traditional growing methods come with an ecological price tag that’s not in keeping with what British Columbia is all about. Greenhouses are the future – they’re more sustainable, and they lend themselves to a better product. As Tantalus’s website sensibly states, “It's simple. Would you grow tomatoes in a closet?” Changing the cannabis industry is Dan’s mission, but it hasn’t been an easy one.

Dan is a B.C. boy at heart. Vancouver born and raised, he studied economics at the University of Victoria just in time to graduate into the 2008 recession. Even so, he started out as a financial analyst – though he quickly realized there was something bigger out there, waiting for him. But when he started networking, reaching out to friends, parents, friends of parents and so on, he heard the recession reverberating back in his ears everywhere he went.

Dan didn’t care. The first step in entrepreneurship is learning to take a beating without bowing your head. “If you get to the end of the conversation and they say ‘I can’t help you,’ you say ‘Give me the names of three people who can,’ ” Dan says of the irrepressible pursuit of his early goals.

You can’t be fazed by these things, Dan tells me; no one in his network of insightful and intelligent up-and-comers let the threat of competition give them pause. “You’re going to have to go through discomfort you’ve never experienced before to achieve results you didn’t think you were capable of.”

Dan is careful not to speak in sweeping generalizations; he talks instead of his observations – though of course, these observations come from six years of experience building Tantalus Labs, and a history of determined pursuit of entrepreneurial objectives. Waking up early, for instance, is a characteristic he notes in most successful entrepreneurs. It’s not necessarily a requirement for success, but Dan doesn’t seem to know of any entrepreneurs who sleep in – not that Dan has a typical definition of ‘sleeping in.’ His predetermined sleep-in days afford him the grand luxury of a 7:30 a.m. wakeup call.

If this is starting to sound like the typical story of a motivated entrepreneur with an iron work-ethic, that’s no coincidence. A lot of the traits of successful entrepreneurs are battle-tested and well known. But the world is shifting, and entrepreneurship acutely sensitive to the waves of technological and social developments that seem to approach tsunami-level impact.

Phones and laptops are an incredible resource, for instance. For a lot of us, they can be a persistent distraction, but you won’t catch Dan playing Angry Birds while he waits for the bus. It’s not that he denies an electronic addiction, but he’s addicted to information. Dan’s phone is a portal to unyielding productivity. I don’t blame him. Structure and organization are critical to someone juggling as many priorities as Dan, and having a way to manage his tasks and keep the organized mess from turning to abject chaos is a privilege he doesn’t take for granted. The fact that the tool that allows for this level of organization fits in his pocket is a bonus.

All of this is useless, though, without principles. “Visions change,” Dan tells me, “strategies change. Principles don’t.”

Dan is a big proponent of a ‘first principles’ approach to entrepreneurship. He’s a philosophy fan, particularly well-versed in the classic Greek thinkers who devised systems of logic and reasoning that would shape the way humanity thought for thousands of years. Philosophical discussions can sound abstract and aloof, but the core of this kind of thinking is the notion of sound ideas.

Sound ideas are the basis for everything Dan does. As long as he knows his principles, he can always take a step back and ask himself if the latest idea, product, or strategy is in keeping with the reasons he started down this road in the first place. Part of that, he says, means mastering your emotions.

“Any successful entrepreneur – any successful human – must be a master of his or her emotions.” Dan says. “Don’t pretend that your triggers and weaknesses don’t exist – that’s not stoicism, even if people think it is. You don’t need to be emotionless, you’re a human being. You’re going to be affected by pain, confusion, fear… and mastery of how to respond to that stimulus is the essence of stoicism.”

Dan’s impetus as an entrepreneur seems to come from a mastery of fear. As a kid, he saw his intelligent and ambitious father struggle with a business project that was dragged sideways by partners; Dan decided that he’d never let someone destroy something he’d built, and he already knew he wanted to build something of value. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, but even as a teenager, Dan was already resolute.

As an entrepreneur, Dan tells me, you’re going to hit stumbling blocks, and you won’t know how to overcome them at the time. Dan surrounds himself with emotionally intelligent people: mentors, confidants, friends, family, and his team. Maybe it’s a function of Vancouver, he posits: we’re descendants of free-spirited hippies. Regardless, Dan knows that emotional intelligence is a far more important leadership quality than raw IQ. As an entrepreneur, you’re often leaping blindly into new space. “Things can be tricky when you have no template for your vision,” Dan tells me. Emotional intelligence will keep you level, and allow you to grow into the new roles that await you.

Now, we’re approaching my territory. Dan isn’t a recruiter, but he has built teams from scratch, and he knows the value of good people. Dan started with a carefully tailored group of specialists, surrounding himself with people whom he trusted not only to build his vision, but to build him as a person. From there, the strength of his team drew in the first new person, who drew in the second, and soon Dan had a brand so singularly principled and constructed that quality candidates gravitated towards him.

It all comes down to the early-game, Dan assures me. “Your first 20 employees are the difference between success and failure.” Good talent attracts good talent, and momentum is built. Fortunately, Dan had a talented core team, and now he’s reaping the benefits. “We are outdoorsy people, we’re Vancouverites,” Dan says, citing the strength his team gains from sharing not only a passion and talent for their work, but a fascination for nature. Cooperation and shared vision seem to come easier in this nature-shrouded town.

It’s something Dan loves about Vancouver, and something I’ve grown to love too. “We’re incredibly community-oriented,” Dan says. In his experience, everyone wants to contribute to what everyone else is doing, creating a cooperative network that raises everyone up. No one is alone in a silo, working only for their own goals, and this is something we both find incredibly encouraging. I’ve said before that our strength comes from our ability to work together, each doing what we do best to build world-leading businesses; through the strength of our cooperation and the strength of our enterprise, we can build Vancouver into a city that rivals the world. Dan is the sort of person who will make that vision a reality.

“Vancouver celebrates the apex of liberalism. It empowers people like no other place,” says Dan. “…We’re not beholden to any trend here.” Dan sees Vancouver’s startup ecosystem as a teenager: “It’s still figuring itself out.” That means we have the opportunity to sculpt a future we want to see.

Dan smiles when he opens up about the future. “Five years from now, we’re having this interview in a gorgeous – but sensibly priced – office in Vancouver. We’re… celebrating the domination of the entire cannabis industry, not just by Tantalus Labs, but by better cannabis from greenhouses [in general]. We’re in a place, in a time where Tantalus Labs is recognized globally as an amazing resource for quality B.C. bud, and we carry the torch for what that means.” Dan continues with the passion I’ve come to expect from him, “We have something to contribute here… If I can look around at me and my team and know we’ve done that, I’ll be a happy camper no matter how financially successful we are.”

Huge thanks to Dan for talking to me at length about his journey and his ambitions. He’s an outgoing guy who’s always looking for the value in meeting new people (does that sound familiar?) so reach out to him @dsutton1986 on Instagram or Twitter. While you’re at it, be sure to check out the cool things going on at tantaluslabs.com (it’s interesting now, but Dan tells me it’s going to get even more exciting in the near future), and watch Dan’s TEDx talk on how he’s changing the cannabis industry.

There’s always more to a story than can fit on a page. Get in touch today to learn more about my story, or to find out how I can help change yours for the better.

 

Shane Gagnon is the Director of Clarity Recruitment Vancouver, with six years of experience in the industry. This is his personal blog, where you can expect to find not only insights from his endeavour to disrupt the recruitment industry, but also a glimpse into his pursuit of a satisfying career for himself and the finance/accounting professionals of Vancouver. Join Shane for each new post, as he reveals the journey that brought him here, and where he plans to go next.